Tom Wolfe Speaks

at Wordstruck Program


by Jennifer Harrison

On my return home this evening from hearing Tom Wolfe speak to a crowd of 300 at the newly opened Indianapolis Arts Center, I notice a thunderbolt wisp of clouds superimposed on the autumn moon. Is the illuminated cloud moonstruck I wonder? Or does the wispy thunderbolt pierce the moon? The paradox captures my imagination for a moment. 

But the ring of Tom Wolfe's ideas and words have a far stronger hold on me. Call me "wordstruck" by the four-day, Oct. 12-15, literary event of the same name. I ponder the rich nuances of Wolfe's muses about art, science, architecture and the search for meaning in the 20th century. 

Wolfe's topic is From Bauhaus to Your House from his book of the same name. An icon in a white suit, Wolfe is the first speaker of the newly completed Indianapolis Art Center nestled on the north end of Broad Ripple. The new art center was designed by Indiana's own Michael Graves, a renown American architect of the post-modern style. 

The master weaver begins his remarks with reference to what he sees missing in 20th century history - the history of intellectual ideas. It all begins in the late 19th century with Darwin. The science of evolution and survival of the fittest was soon followed by social Darwinism. Karl Marx's ideology of socialism is social Darwinism, proclaims Wolfe. And socialism is not possible without Darwinism, he says. 

Edward Wilson, biologist and neuro-scientist, is the next Darwin, proclaims Wolfe. According to Wilson, humans are born as exposed negatives. You can change how you handle them, but you can't alter the underlying film. It's the old debate of nature versus nurture. The controversy about IQ caused by the book, The Bell Curve is a current example of the genetic debate. What else can we relate to genetics, he wonders. Is there a homosexual gene? What about moral imperatives or ultra-conservatism? 

Wolfe proceeds to relate the ideology of socialism to modern architecture. He's fascinated a handful of Europeans from the Bauhaus school of design shaped modern architecture and the landscape of cities around the world. And they accomplished this with nothing more than the power of ideas. The ideas of men like Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe and LeCorbusier develop in compounds - university compounds. Once established in the forum of academia those ideas are sent forth in the world by disciples seeking to change the old order. 

The style of architecture brought to America (then exported back to the world) by men like Gropius, Mies and Bruer is known by several monikers including modernism, the international style and the Chicago school. Modernism is typified by boxy glass towers, where "less is more" as Van der Rohe was fond of saying. The ideas of the international school came to life not because the architectural wizards had any financial backing of their own making, says Wolfe, but rather through the power of ideas. 

The social agenda of the Bauhaus was to provide housing for the working class. Part of the intent was to extricate bourgeoisie pretension and excess in design. The paradox, says Wolfe, is the style and ideology it represented was used to house capitalism. How could that happen he wonders? 

During the 1930s corporations became enthralled with the use of experts and committees. And committees are not complete without a resident expert or two. Who are more likely experts in design than other architects, disciples themselves of the academia? Thus the compound has an agent in the board room steering captilists to architectural solutions deemed politically correct at universities. Yet those design solutions are not necessarily the best response to organizational needs, the needs of real people. And all this transpires because of . . . powerful ideas. 

The power of ideas is Wolfe's essential message. Following his innate curiosity, Wolfe leads us to his unique brand of understanding and translation. His voice is clear and invigorating. Wolfe's still got the right stuff.# 

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